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Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger still allowed to make films? David Ayer's Sabotage

Schwarzenegger's mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop by 75 per cent - so it's a mystery why a capable director like David Ayer would cast him in his latest pulpy thriller.

Arnie.
Dog's dinner: Schwarzenegger as John "Breacher" Wharton.

Sabotage (15)
dir: David Ayer

More than 40 years into his performing career, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks as confused as the rest of us about how he got where he is. He can’t act. He has only basic stirrings of comic awareness. He suggests no particular quality other than immovability. He is 66, his body no longer a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts”, as Clive James put it, and more like a varnished sideboard with veins. His mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop instantly by 75 per cent. This becomes 90 per cent should he be called on to say anything.

None of which mattered in the 1980s when he was galumphing through cheerfully coarse action movies, ruining the pattern only occasionally by being skilful in something perfect such as The Terminator. His latest film, Sabotage, is more troublesome. It has a lively, even witty, screenplay by its director, David Ayer, who is a pedlar of high-gloss pulp (Training Day, Street Kings). In casting Schwarzenegger in a demanding role, though, he overreaches himself. He may have been hoping for the sort of gentle revelation seen in James Mangold’s Cop Land, in which Sylvester Stallone played a hearing-impaired small-town sheriff. But Stallone had always possessed reserves of pathos unavailable to his Austrian rival. This is not to disparage Schwarzenegger: ask the family pooch to cook steak au poivre and it would be cruel to punish the poor creature for its inability to do so. Schwarzenegger is that dog and Sabotage is dinner.

He plays John “Breacher” Wharton, a big deal in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eight months earlier, John’s wife was killed by a Mexican cartel. They sent pieces of her to John’s home every day for a fortnight. How cruel is that? If you’re not in to sign for those packages, you’ve got to ask a neighbour to do it, or arrange redelivery, or even schlep down to the post office depot.

These days, John heads an undercover special ops team in which everyone has nicknames. There’s Pyro (Max Martini), so called because he once blew up a drugs lab. Monster (Sam Worthington) is a psycho. Grinder (Joe Manganiello) presumably specialises in sending pictures of his junk to any men within a 500-metre radius.

This mob is a mishmash of muscles, cornrows, tattoos and bandanas, with one female member, Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who is even more macho than the rest. The trouble is, someone has started picking off the team in sadistic ways. One member has his Winnebago dragged on to train tracks while he’s in it and another is nailed to the ceiling, though a harsher punishment might have been to confiscate their steroids or impose a lifetime ban on the attendance of lap-dancing clubs. It’s up to the short-haired, power-dressing detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to find out who has it in for them. If she can deliver some snappy put-downs in the process, so much the better.

Williams is the best thing in Sabotage by some distance. In one scene, she has to swim in her pool at night, only to be surprised when Schwarzenegger appears, brandishing a bottle of Gnarly Head (possibly the only brand of wine to be named after him). Williams is naked, taken aback and forced to crane her neck to peer up at her co-star – and still gains the upper hand in the deadpan way she says: “This isn’t creepy.”

Ayer has also introduced a note of mystery into her character, inadvertently or otherwise, by placing on her office desk framed photographs of a baby while making no reference to motherhood in the script. Caroline lives alone. Is the child dead? Did she lose a custody battle? Has she been snipping pictures out of Parenting magazine as part of some crazed fantasy life? We never find out. At least it provides a distraction from the whizzing bullets and extreme gore, not to mention the mild anxiety induced every time Schwarzenegger is required to imitate an actual human emotion without giving himself a hernia.